FRISCO, Texas – In a league with this much annual turnover, it's hard to know where to start the long climb back to the coming season.
As has been noted, the Cowboys are
looking at a considerable cap crunch in 2022, which goes along with a lengthy list of important free agents.
If there's good news about where things stand right now, it's that this team has an obvious starting point for improvement – its franchise quarterback.
"This whole thing revolves around No. 4," said Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones last week at the Senior Bowl. "That's what this league is all about, it's a quarterback-driven league. We feel like we've got one of the best in the business, if not the best. It's all about him. We've got to continue to put the pieces around him."
It feels like ancient history at this point, but it's fair to say Dak Prescott played at a top-tier level through the first half of the season. If anything, what makes this past year so frustrating is that Prescott and the Cowboys' offense were unable to snap out of a nine-week funk after achieving such dizzying highs.
Regardless of how the season ended, the quarterback position isn't the Cowboys' problem. But as Jones noted, putting Prescott in the best position possible to succeed isn't something they did with enough regularity last year.
"I think we put Dak in some tough situations with penalties, with having some struggles in the run game," he said. "We had games where we ran the ball well, but we've got to be more consistent."
The bit about running the ball is obvious. The Cowboys averaged an absurd 164 rushing yards per game during the first six weeks of the season, making life much more manageable for Prescott. And even if it's not fair to expect an NFL ground game to consistently produce at that level, it doesn't account for the dropoff. In their five losses after the bye week – to Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Arizona and San Francisco – the Cowboys averaged just 69 rushing yards per game.
"If you look at the theme of all those playoff games – the 49ers that beat us, their team was running the football," Jones said. "The Rams, they want to run the football. Once you start to run the football well, then it opens everything else up and makes it easier."
It also should help Prescott to once again work with Kellen Moore, who is poised to return for a fourth season as offensive coordinator after the Miami Dolphins hired Mike McDaniel over the weekend.
"The hope is that we can keep Kellen and keep this continuity going and build on what we ultimately know," Jones said.
Those parts are obvious to anyone who follows football. The problem is that the issues with the run game were tied up in a larger, more perplexing problem: the Cowboys' penchant for penalty flags.
The Cowboys led the NFL with 168 penalties called against them last season. Even when you subtract 27 declined flags, the final number of 141 is an eye-popping number. And of that tally, 76 of them – or 54% -- were called against the Dallas offense.
It's staggering to think about. Between 38 holding calls, 20 false starts, six delays of game and plenty of others, the Cowboys cost them plenty of opportunities. The total from the holding calls alone amounts to 373 yards, as the Cowboys' offense line wiped out 13 different gains of 12-plus yards – including several gains of 30 or more.
Thinking back to games like the Week 17 loss to Arizona, when the Cowboys incurred four separate holding penalties in a day, it's easy to see how many drives were eventually stalled by how far they put themselves behind the chains.
The frustrating thing about that, of course, is that penalties can be coached away during the course of the season – theoretically anyway. Among many disappointments from 2021, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones noted his frustration that his team wasn't able to clean up its penalty problems during the course of the year.
"What I'm mainly interested in is our ability to adjust," Jones said last week. "It is incumbent on us not to wait until installations in the offseason or wait until the offseason to adjust."
Disappointing as it might be that it didn't happen sooner, it has to be a focal point in 2022. It might not be a cure all, but it's a seemingly simple fix that could pay big dividends – and make life a lot easier on the Cowboys' franchise quarterback.
"All those things are just going to put Dak in better situations to be successful and win football games for us – which he's shown that he can do at a high level," Stephen Jones said. "I think, if we do those things, we won't be putting him in some of the tough situations that we put him in this year."